Memoir seems like it should be the easiest form of writing, right? No reporting, no research, just writing down what you already know. Yeah…not so much. Anyone who’s ever sat down to write a memoir can tell you that getting those thoughts out of your own head and onto paper (in a clear and relatable way) can be a lot harder than it sounds. Every story is different because every life is different and so is every writer, but after editing and publishing more than 700 memoir pieces over the past 10 years, our team at Narratively has put together this guide to 6 steps that will help you get that memoir story from idea in your head to perfection on the page.
1. Write From Your Own Point of View
This one might sound obvious, but it needs to be said. The most revealing and impactful memoir comes when you write about something you yourself have experienced—rather than something you witnessed, or that happened to someone you know. We see a lot of pitches that are about something the writer was perhaps a small part of, but they weren’t the central character. If your story could be retitled “The Most Exciting Thing My Mom Ever Did” or “How I Came to Terms with My Cousin’s Sexuality,” that’s not really your memoir (unless your mom or cousin impacted you in such an undeniably profound way that you surprised yourself and everyone around you and changed as a result — in which case we’d need headlines that are more about you for both those examples! You get the point…). Memoir is explicitly about you, and you’re the only one who can tell us how that unique experience truly made you feel, which is what makes it so engaging. If you’re wondering what memoir story you should write, it’s worth starting by asking yourself the question: What’s the one story I alone can tell?
2. Don’t Hide Behind Pretty Words
We all love a beautiful turn of phrase, but when it comes to memoir, what you tell us is actually more important than how you tell it. Like a good therapy session, the best memoir pieces are the ones in which the writer finds the courage to tell us exactly what happened, and exactly how they feel about it, no holds barred. One thing we see over and over again, even in some of the strongest drafts, is that when the writer gets to the pivotal point in the story, they duck out of telling us exactly what happened, and instead of giving us the full facts, they give us a sentence or two that *sounds* great but where the meaning isn’t clear. That might work in poetry, but it doesn’t work in memoir. Just tell us what happened. That may sound simple, but it isn’t always so easy. The best, most important parts of any memoir are often the parts that are the most painful, or most embarrassing, or that you’re afraid will anger someone you love. That’s when the urge to hide behind pretty words kicks in. If you can fight that urge, and instead be as clear and honest and vulnerable as possible in those pivotal moments, that’s what makes a memoir great.
And it can also be the most rewarding. In discussing how writers should approach memoir, the writer Finlay Games told us in his Narratively Storyteller Spotlight: “For me, sharing intimately about my past has helped me to feel less ashamed for things that I had no business feeling ashamed about in the first place. It also helped my difficult past to feel like a gift rather than a burden, as I know that my sharing has helped people to feel less alone or inspired to make changes.” None of that happens until you can be as honest as possible on the page.
3. Tell Us a Full Story
A good memoir doesn’t have to cover your entire life story. Some of the best memoir stories we’ve read are primarily about just one year, one week, or even one day in a life. As long as the events of that time span are a dramatic, compelling and important slice of your life, then it’s possible to make any of those work. But each standalone memoir piece does need to be a full story, meaning there’s a clear beginning, middle and end; you take the reader on a journey from start to finish; and by the end something major changes in your own outlook on life, and the reader understands why. Dena Landon does a great job of this in her Narratively memoir piece, “I Was Taught to Hate My Lesbian Neighbors. They Took Me In Anyway.” The story is almost exclusively about one year in Dena’s childhood, but she makes it work by 1) Writing vivid, dramatic scenes about the pivotal moments in that year, and 2) briefly giving us the context of what happened before and after, and how that one experience helped shape the rest of her life.
4. Step Away and Come Back
We all like to think we have the instincts to get things right on the first go, but when it comes to writing, your first draft is never, ever, ever going to be your final. This is definitely true with memoir. As writer (and proud parent) Kern Carter told us: “the biggest connection [between writing and parenting] is patience, which is the hardest part of being a parent or a writer. For me, being patient with my writing — extending scenes, giving more details — is just now sinking in.” Getting an essay into shape is honestly a lot like raising a kid: It is not gonna do what you want it to on your first try and you are gonna have to repeat yourself. When you’ve been consumed by writing something and you think you finally have that solid draft with all the necessary details included, take a break. Go for a walk, or step away for a few days, and try to think about something else. Nine times out of ten, when you’re taking that break, that’s when it’s gonna hit you — that one new thing you hadn’t considered yet, but that you absolutely have to include in the final piece.
5. Interrogate Your Memories
OK, remember when we said memoir sounds easy because there’s no reporting? Well, that’s not really true. You should be the central character in your own memoir, but you’re not the only one. Your story almost certainly involves interactions with other people, be they family, friends, frenemies, teammates, coworkers, teachers, neighbors, etc…Once you have your first draft down on paper, it’s usually worth calling some of the other people involved and asking: Do you remember these events the same way? Looking back, do you feel the same way about it that I do? If not, why? It’s not so much that you can’t remember all the facts yourself—although if you can’t, calling a friend is always a good idea! — it’s that when you’ve been stewing over something in your head for years, you develop a particular perspective that may not be inclusive of all viewpoints. The best writers are always rethinking whether what they think they know is really the full truth. As Candace Opper told us in her Storyteller Spotlight, “I find the idea of closure — at least, the widely accepted meaning of that concept — to be pretty bogus. As a writer, I’m constantly foraging around my past for inspiration and truth and insight, so I value being able to tap into the raw emotions around my experiences. I understand the emotional practicality of “moving on,” but I think I find more value in being sort of a living, evolving sum of those experiences.” Often, when a writer talks to someone about their story and finds out their friend or loved one views the events differently, that can blow open a whole new line of thought to explore in the piece, and one that can be invaluable.
6. Read Memoir!
The best way to improve as a writer is to read lots and lots and lots of writing — particularly the type of writing you’re working on and aspire to publish. So if you want to write memoir, read memoir. And if you’re interested in publishing your memoir, keep in mind that every outlet approaches things a little differently. Just because your piece is great doesn’t mean it will be right for every publication. If there’s a particular place you want to write for, the best thing you can do is read a lot of stories they have published. If you’re thinking of entering Narratively’s 2022 Spring Memoir Prize (accepting entries through June 27, 2022), start by reading a few of our all-time favorite stories, below, to get an idea of what we’re interested in.
- My Childhood in an Apocalyptic Cult
- The Adventures of a Pakistani in Texas
- My Bizarre Reign as New York’s King of “Virgin Russian Hair”
- I Was Taught to Hate My Lesbian Neighbors. They Took Me In Anyway.
- Diary of a Bachelor Who Suddenly Became a Solo Dad to a Teenage Girl
- My Secret Life Tracking Down Debtors
- How I Wrote Myself into a Real-life Romantic Comedy — That Turned into a Survivalist Thriller
- My Coming Out Story, Starring a Priest, an Animal Sacrifice and Ricky Martin
And just remember — writing a memoir is hard and can be incredibly emotional, but we think it’s also one of the most powerful and rewarding ways to reflect on yourself and your life. The process can offer so much meaning, inspiration and joy (for you and your readers, and for editors like us, too!!) So, don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while to get there, and be proud that you’re taking a chance and putting yourself out in the world.